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The crisis of the West tempts us to turn to the East for aid in our plight; but such a turn is riddled with complications, and might, rather than resolving our crisis, betray our heritage.
The awareness of the crisis of the West – awareness which cannot help but touch anyone who is even remotely conscious of the character of the times in which we live – implies immediately and imperatively the need to find a solution to that crisis. In any time of percieved crisis, attempt is inevitably made to address the crisis on its own level: an economic crisis is addressed economically or at best politically; a social crisis is addressed socially or at best ‘culturally’; a personal crisis is addressed personally – say, through ‘self-improvement’ or psychiatry, or, in higher and better times, spiritually or religiously. Yet in times of real crisis, this action on the level of the crisis itself does not suffice, for a true and severe crisis implies that the problems which bring about the crisis in fact transcend the level of the crisis itself; hence its nature as a a true and severe crisis. To remain on the level of the crisis is thus to condemn oneself to suffer its full consequences unabated.
In times of real crisis, action on the level of the crisis itself does not suffice, for a true and severe crisis implies that the problems which bring about the crisis in fact transcend the level of the crisis itself.
Whatever else may be said of the crisis of the West, it is by now clear that it is a real crisis, a crisis which is fully of this dire degree and extent. It has manifestations in politics, economy, society, religion, culture, and philosophy; but to keep to any one of these particular domains is to guarantee that we will do nothing more than aggravate the problems we would resolve.
The depth and severity of the crisis lead many to look for its solution, not to say resolution, outside of the West. It is felt by these seekers that the crisis touches us at so profound a point, at a place so deep, so fundamental, in our histories and our traditions, that the only possibility left to us is to escape the borders of our history and tradition altogether, and to try to find consolation or solace or succour in the traditions or practices or histories of other parts of the world. And because the one part of the world to possess traditions in any way comparable in their depths, heights, and splendour to that of the West, lies to the East,1 a tendency has arisen in recent years, in the social, the artistic, the philosophical, the religious or spiritual, and even (though to a lesser extent) the political, to ‘turn to the East’.
This is a problem of extraordinary breadth and gravity; in the present article we can do no more than indicate a number of difficulties inherent to these tendencies. In the critique that follows, it should be understood that we do not mean that the difficulties indicated are applicable to every man of the West. There have been, there are now, and there will be yet exceptional individuals who truly possess, through some native and probably connate affinity on their part, a kind of ‘Eastern vocation’: a true capacity to penetrate some one of the cultures of the East and to understand it more or less as a man born within it would. Instances could be named of these exceptional individuals, such as George Gurdjieff, René Guénon, Alexandra David-Néel and the mysterious (but evidently quite real) protagonist of Somerset Maugham’s biographical novel The Razor’s Edge, ‘Larry Darrell’. These individuals will follow their own path quite despite what we might write here, and they will be right to do so. But they cannot have any bearing on the wider question of the West and its special relation to the East, which is what immediately concerns us.
The first and most immediate difficulty with any ‘turn to the East’ regards especially the Far East or Oriental traditions, and is evident to any man of any sensibility whatsoever who looks on the Western manifestations of this philosophy or practice. It almost goes without saying that the better part of these meditation rooms, Zen temples, dojo, and societies of the Hare Krishna which have sprung up everywhere in the West in recent decades are of the most disconnected and nontraditional quality with respect to their authentic points of origin.2 The many practitioners of democratized Buddhism or watered-down Yoga or pragmaticized martial arts in our contemporary West by and large interpret their practices, not even through the lens of the West, which would be distorting enough in this case, but through the lens rather of modern liberalism specifically, which results in a new ‘practice’ of the blandest and most inauthentic kind.3 Failing to understand themselves, how could they possibly understand that which is radically different from them?
Therefore, before one can possibly address the value of a ‘turn to the East’, one must first articulate how such a turn is even possible – a turn which does not, that is to say, simply misrepresent and disfigure that which it would import.
The deeper problem here can be articulated as follows. A Westerner generally seeks the East in order to rectify what he perceives to be some deep contradiction or inadequacy in the West; he looks to the East therefore as to a clarification, a remedy, or a supplement. Were he satisfied with the West and ‘at home’ in the West, he should see no need to go so far abroad for ethical rules or disciplines or daily practices. Yet he will usually look to the East, not through the eyes of the East, but through the eyes of the West; he grasps most surely that which he most intimately and implicitly recognizes and understands, that which is most familiar to him. But this necessarily means the part of the East which is most ‘Western’ or most visible to Western eyes and most accessible to Western interpretation. The West in turning to the East therefore only aggravates its own difficulties by seizing upon itself once again, by making the long journey to the Orient only to bring back – the Occident.
This misdirection has become easier in our day than ever before, because the ‘turn to the East’ on the part of the West has been pre-empted by a prior ‘turn to the West’ on the part of the East. Great portions of the East today are unrecognizable with respect to what they were yesterday; the Orient in particular is not what it was. Enormous regions of the East have adopted Western economical and political forms, even in many cases social and religious and cultural habits and mores. The West in turning to the East, if it is not capable of truly intricate, long, and careful examination of the East, is liable to find only itself, mirrored imperfectly and in as distorted a manner. Worse still, it might even settle on this distorted reflection as though it were ‘the authentic East itself’, embracing what is in fact its own foreign corruption as though it were an exotic nostrum capable of curing its every ill. The West is liable, that is to say, to bring back from its ‘Eastern expedition’ only a convoluted and unrecognizable reflection of itself, which will do nothing to aid it and everything to goad it further to its ruin.
The West, before it can understand the East, must understand itself; and so the old inscription etched into the very doorway of Delphi itself holds as much for us modern Westerners as it did for our most antique forefathers.
It is clear that the West, if it is to gain anything of value from the East, must then seek that in the East which differs from the West. For if the West brings back only that which is most Western in the East, it will neither resolve its own difficulty, nor does justice to the Eastern traditions to which it seems to want to pay homage. The West must then thoroughly and profoundly understand that portion of the East it faces, before it attempts to evoke or embody any aspects of the same within the sphere of its crisis. To understand the East means to understand the ways in which the East both agrees with and differs from the West; but this cannot be accomplished save as the West understands itself first with adequate comprehensivity. The ‘turn to the East’ cannot be accomplished then without a prior and inward turn into the West, a deep and ruthless investigation of what it means to be a Westerner, and what is the particular nature of the West, and, finally, in what the crisis of the West consists. That man who seeks to comprehend Confucius before he has set himself to unriddling the Platonic Socrates; that man who studies Buddhism or Hinduism or Islam before he has attempted to get to the bottom of Catholicism or Protestantism or Christianity or the old Pagan faiths; that man who learns Sanskrit to read the Vedas rather than learning Greek or Latin, Aramaic or Hebrew to read the Bible and the Classics – such a one may well be a fine scholar, may well have something legitimate to add to the academic or scientific review of these topics, may have any number of interesting and relevant lessons to teach us from what he has learned: but before the doors marked with the sign of the crisis of the West, he must be regarded as an intruder and an outsider.
The West, before it can understand the East, must understand itself; and so the old inscription etched into the very doorway of Delphi itself holds as much for us modern Westerners as it did for our most antique forefathers: γνῶθι σεαυτόν must govern our paths as much as it did theirs.
Therefore, before speaking of a ‘turn to the East’, we must then undergo a relentless, tireless and above all ruthless cultural, historical, and philosophical examination of ourselves and our spirit and our traditions, beginning with their first and eldest roots and working up to that period which has constituted our present Era, the Modern Era. The necessity for this has been imposed on us, as we have said, by the crisis of the West. We may be called, then, the students of this crisis, or, to use another term which at this moment signifies practically the same thing, but from its positive aspect, philoccidentals.
We restate then the problem. To comprehend any crisis, as we have said, imposes the obligation of transcending the plane on which the crisis occurs, lest one move forever within the crisis – lest one fail, that is to say, to com-prehend or under-stand the crisis at all. To comprehend the crisis means to step past its circumference, means to proceed past the limits of the crisis to perceive the crisis from above or underneath or beyond the crisis. But the awareness of this necessity, and of the enormous difficulty it implies, is identical to the insight or intuition that it is necessary in some way to ‘escape from the West’ in order to save the West – is akin, that is to say, to the very movement toward the East, the very ‘turn to the East’, which we have been discussing. It appears that we cannot understand or save the West save as we transcend it, and it would appear that the only place we can go to look upon it ‘from the heights’, or at least from a similar level, is the East; yet we have also realized that we cannot go to the East save as we first understand or save the West. We thus appear to be caught in the direst of impasses, a cul-de-sac whose only exit is presently being closed off by a host of enemies on the one hand, and at the end of which stands an ominous magical portal of uncertain destination, which might for all we know be naught other than a ‘magic mirror’.
Let us then return. We have concluded that we must penetrate as deeply into the West, the history and the nature of the West, as we can before aught can be accomplished. Let us begin with one of the most evident elements of that history and that nature. We have spoken of a ‘turn to the East’, which implies a turn away from the West. We have spoken even of flight from the West, of escape from the West: but this very movement, this ‘flight’ and ‘turning’, is the furthest thing possible from the spirit of the West, which is and has always been a warrior’s spirit, a spirit of undaunted and most courageous confrontation of enemy and reality alike. The very movement which compels us to seek deliverance in some foreign land, is itself one of the clearest and most unambiguous and exigent signs of our inner crisis. Then we could do not better than, in the truest spirit of the West, turn face and confront this situation, to seize it with both hands, even if we, like Beowulf, thus set upon the drake that is destined to destroy us. Not flight, but battle is what is wanted in our straits; like Leonidas and his Spartans we stand at this flaming gate, and do not cede though the outcome be grim. If the crisis of the West must result in the demise of the same, then at least let us make it a Western death, that whatever remains of our scion may call it an honourable and glorious death, τοῖς κείνων ῥήμασι πειθόμενοι, ‘obedient to their laws’.
Yet the first point that we must confront in our facing of the Western crisis is the element of hopelessness which has been contained in it from the first, and which has up till now, even in this very essay, coloured our view. The very tone of our investigations so far has been governed by what is almost the presupposition that the West has entered into a crisis of such profundity that it cannot escape it save by escaping itself – implying therefore that the crisis of the West is a comprehensive crisis, a crisis which encompasses the West, and thus a crisis which cannot be superseded save as we supersede the West. That is to say, it implies that the entirety of the West, in all its traditions, its modes and manners, is implicated in this crisis. Yet the West has always been multifarious before it has been unitary, and has derived much of its enormous and hitherto inexhaustible strength from the variety and diversity (if we may be permitted to reclaim a word which has been recently much abused) of its geography, its climes, its societies, its histories, its arts, cults, and traditions. To suppose that there is no point within the West from which we can regard the crisis of the West from outside that crisis, is already a supposition redolent of desperation and resignation. But these traits are not becoming to the sons of the West. No man has told us that there is no living part yet of this tree, no healthy sinew in this diseased body, no pure spot left in a largely tainted spirit. Let us cast despair from us, and, with the full-throated cry of O Freunde, nicht diese Töne! let us begin again.
We have spoken of confronting the crisis of the West. The first task that stands before us, then, is in defining, before anything, in what the crisis of the West consists. Is it the crisis of Western modernity? But we can then begin to resolve it by returning to the roots of modernity, and further back yet, to antiquity. Is it the crisis of Western religiosity, the ‘death of God’? But then it is ours as men of Western piety (recalling that pius was the epithet even of Virgil’s Aeneas) to verify that God has truly died, and not rather, as seems much more likely given human contingency, our mere faith in God; and if the latter, how this might be rekindled even in a day of such impiety as ours. Is it the crisis of modern philosophy in particular? Then we can look to the ancient. Is it the crisis of Western philosophy as such? But then we can turn to Western religiosity, Western mysticism, Western poetry and art. Only if all of these strands of the West have proven frayed, only if all the many qualities of the West have fallen into desuetude and decay, can we as Westerners possibly be justified in turning our backs on our own culture to seek out another.
Much rather than a ‘turn to the East’ we should hope for and actively encourage a ‘Russian turn’, a movement in all sincerity, charity and friendliness, to our good neighbours of the Middle World.
There are questions involved in this that suffice to a generation of intent and dedicated men. We cannot answer these questions here; we can do no more than pose them, with the understanding that their articulation is already much, insofar as it indicates a way forward to us, who have become but lost and wandering – a specific realm within which we can begin to exert our Western explorer’s and conqueror’s spirit in resolution of our Western crisis.
As for the ‘turn to the East’ – this much is certain about it. In its fullest form, as an attempt to regenerate the West with the living waters of a foreign fount, it is premature, and rendered impossible by its prematurity. It is a movement of desperation, a movement which reeks too often of surrender.4 This is not in any way to belittle the traditions of the East (it is even to defend their primacy as traditions – of the East), nor is it to condemn those individuals we have already mentioned, who are drawn hence by some inexorable imperative within their souls. But these individuals are already in some sense not Westerners; while we who pose these questions, we who do not feel our fibres vibrate in accord with the tonalities of Oriental scales or the vibrations of Hindu chanting or the call of the muezzin from his morning tower – we whose centre of gravity is eternally here, on this ‘Asian peninsula’, this ‘peninsula that juts out from the great mass of Asia without a break and is ridiculously called a continent’5 – we still are Westerners. Then let us keep faith with the West, though this finally mean our demise in its defense. Only as we have performed this basic act of turning Westward does it become licit to us, and indeed perhaps even desirable, to turn Eastward.
A final word has to be said regarding a nation whose conspicuous absence in the above remarks will have been noted by attentive readers. For there is a land which stands, as it were, ‘between East and West’, or better say which straddles the boundary between them, and which to this day retains a degree of insulation against the crisis which afflicts the Eurosphere. We speak, of course, of Russia. Russia has always been an ‘in-between land’, and up to this day, despite its hoary and venerable age, despite the great tragedies and darknesses which have descended on it in times past, despite the wars that have bloodied its streets and rivers and the hideous despotic leviathan which drank its spirit like a vampire over the bulk of the last century, seems to be one of the youngest nations currently living, and one to which a kind of promise and anticipation is spring-like clinging, despite the ice and hoarfrosts of its northern climes. The Long War of the nineteenth century, which seems to have exhausted Europe physiologically, generationally and spiritually, somehow did not do as much to the Russians. We may wonder: will they rise from those ashes still in greater splendour, as Europe once did from barbarian invasions and the fatal grasp of the Black Death?
That, of course, is the particular drama and destiny of the Russians, and to the extent that the course of it relies on their decision and their determination, it cannot affect us. It goes without saying, of course, that we should do all in our power to see to it that the Russians are able to follow this destiny of theirs, and that we should fight, wherever possible, the tampering and meddling of our ‘liberalizing’, globalizing Western statecraft in the special concerns of the Russians. But it is not ours to decide the form that ‘Holy Mother Russia’ will take today or tomorrow. What is very emphatically ours is to learn from and to inform those of our Russian brethren who are the agents of that decision, as has long been the prerogative given to both of us by the historical rapport between our peoples. Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Turgenev, Gogol, Solzhenitsyn, Bulgakov, Nabokov – only to mention but a handful of the better known authors from the weighty list of Russian letters – whatever one might think of these men and their ideas or works, it is at least clear that a Westerner coming to them for the first time is far from wholly ‘in the dark’, as he will sometimes inevitably feel when he approaches the works of the Far East. (That is at once their charming and their forbidding quality.) There is an element of kinship, of mutual understanding, a certain commonality of aims and ideals, and a simultaneous subtle divergence of vision and view. One ‘knows’ these Russians, even in translation, even when for their heights one cannot wholly comprehend them; and to the degree that they spiritually elude one’s grasp, they elude it by a tantalizing hair’s breadth, the mere width of a shadow. Russia is at once like us and different from us; and that opens a realm of new possibilities for both of us along the lines of self-knowledge. Too often do we neglect the blessing that we have in such a neighbour: to look long and intently at Russia is a little like gazing into a mirror which is at once a mirror and a window; one sees ‘oneself’, but also an ‘other’; one looks deep into one’s own soul, as it were, from different eyes.
Supposing then we really must and without fail step beyond the borders of Europe and look back at the West for a while from ‘outside’ if we are ever to begin to resolve our crisis: in such a case, much rather than a ‘turn to the East’ we should hope for and actively encourage a ‘Russian turn’, a movement in all sincerity, charity and friendliness, to our good neighbours of the Middle World.
One way or another, and wherever we may turn in this wide world in search of answers to the riddles posed by our own nature, let this much remain ever true: that we Westerners go abroad only so that we may return home once again, and to look upon everything that we know so well – this fountain, this garden, this grove; this old stone wall, this cross hanging upon the door and our hound and eagle waiting for us loyally at our worn but sturdy gate – to look upon all of this, that we know so intimately well, as if we had never once before lain our eyes upon it.
1For the purposes of this essay, the term ‘East’ is to be taken in its broadest possible connotation as indicating ‘all that which lies east of Europe’, geographical boundaries of which ‘continent’ can be established more or less with the Ural mountains. Herein, therefore, the ‘East’ can be taken also to include the Middle East, and hence the Islamic civilizations, and is to be taken in contradistinction to the ‘Orient’, which comprises the great civilizations of the so-called Far East, namely, Japan, China and India. Even this last, of course, is an unforgivably wide geography to attempt to encompass in a single appellation; so much as to suggest that Japan, China and India really have a great deal in common with one another is to betray a rather green ignorance of the quality of those nations, so that to speak of an even more generalized ‘East’, which includes also the Arabic nations and tribes, which themselves enjoy similar inner richness and variety, is surely in some sense to commit a crime of remarkable superficiality. I hasten to say at once, then, that this word ‘East’, as it is meant in the present context, is simply intended to provide a term capable, in the most generic way possible, of indicating the real alternatives to Western culture, and should not be taken to carry with it any special positive evaluation of the content or quality of the traditions or cultures involved. It is also needless to say, I hope, that my words here are not levelled against those who have a merely aesthetic interest in Eastern cultures, nor at those who simply have a healthy curiosity or even fascination with what is exotic and noble about them: I am addressing rather those who bend their very ways of life around foreign models that they do not, and in most cases cannot, fully understand. It should also be mentioned in passing regarding the ‘Orient’ that while Japan, China, India, Vietnam, etc. are extraordinarily different in their specific cultural and social forms, on a wide view they tend to have more in common with one another than they do with any of the nations that are commonly taken to pertain to the West, and in this (albeit rather indefinite and loose) respect can be considered a unitary cultural whole which can legitimately be contrasted to the Occident. The term exists thanks to the distant and ‘Gestalt’ view of Westerners; but such a view, though it surely is lacking in a million points of detail and finesse, nonetheless does capture something true about the overall colour, shape and character of that which it looks upon. As for Russia, some words will be dedicated to its special situation at the close of the present essay.
2This is not to deny that there might be legitimate and authentic instances of all these schools or places of worship in the West; the author’s knowledge of such is hardly categorical, and moreover is limited mainly to his experiences in the United States, in which there is good reason to suspect these manifestations are more superficial and disconnected than they might be in parts of Europe. Nonetheless, the critique made here – that a man born in the West who has never spent any goodly number of years living in the East, and living there in the right way – can hardly be expected to own any deep connection to Eastern traditions, no matter what part of the East they pertain to. The same caveat we have expressed above should also be held here, however, insofar as there might well exist exceptional individuals who are able to ‘divine’ the spirit of foreign traditions from afar. But once more, we are dealing here with the rule and not the exception.
3It will be evident that for all manner of present historical reasons, this critique does not apply with the same incisiveness to the ‘Near East’ and the Islamic traditions which are prevalent there. A ‘turn to Islam’ is really possible today in the West in a manner in which it has never hitherto been; and while the present essay is not dedicated to special consideration of that problem, it will suffice to note here that this proximity and accessibility of Islam is actually to be regarded as part and parcel of our crisis, rather than as any effective solution thereto. Whatever good can be said of certain schools of Islam in particular – and despite the recent, and wholly understandable, broad demonization of Islam on the part of many thinkers of the Right, there is good that can be said of them – it is or should be clear that the importation of Islam into the West as the religion of the West would mark the culmination of a battle which has been waging, with greater or lesser heat, for a thousand years; it would mark, that is to say, the replacement of the West with the Near East, the supplantation rather than the supplementation of our traditions – not so much a touch of grace as the coup de grace.
4 We mention here, at the foot of the text, as it were, a last thought regarding this, our West, our Western spirit: this spirit has always and everywhere been a spirit of adventure and, to use a word much beloved of our enemies, appropriation. The West has been the broadest and most comprehensive spirit of any the world has seen. This breadth is represented by those two great achievements that the West and the West alone has brought to the world: philosophy and art, which have been exalted through Western religion. The nature of these as comprehensive modes, which have ever sought, and ever succeeded, in encompassing whatever they encounter in the world, has led to the Western ascendency over all other portions of the globe. If the crisis of the West lies within these forms themselves – and there is some reason to fear that this might be the case – that crisis must be brought to a head. We must then embrace this aspect of the West, in all its ambiguity and greatness. In this spirit, the ‘turn to the East’ is thus not only possible but perhaps even desirable, so long as it is undertaken in accord with Western standards, in the tradition of the West – in a movement, that is to say, of spiritual imperialism, as it were, which does not hesitate to impose its own form on the gold it finds abroad, and loves to bring back the treasures it finds there so as to adorn these Occidental kingdoms.
5 Two parallel formulations of Europe taken respectively from Fernand Braudel’s A History of Civilizations (trans. Richard Mayne, New York: Penguin Books, 1993), p. 304, and Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence (Perennial, 2001), p. 3. Barzun on the basis of this observation speaks unambiguously of the West, which is a term that itself conceals a great many difficulties. For a critique, see Alain de Benoist’s afterword to Tomislav Sunic’s Homo Americanus. It would appear that both ‘Europe’ and ‘West’ are terms infused with problems of clear definition and interpretation. This points us emphatically, however, to the true ‘uniqueness of the West’. The observation regarding the geographical vagueness of the idea of Europe, for instance, which is so evidently true from the merely geographical overview of Europe, begs the question of why Europe should have ever been called a continent at all; and it is clear that the only justification for this transcends geography and enters into the realms rather of sociology, anthropology, politics and culture. Europe has been considered a continent for no other reason than for its clear uniqueness of ethos and ethnos. It is a cultural unit before anything else, and always has been. This lends clear justification, however, to the use also of the term ‘West’ and ‘Western’, which indicates precisely that culturo-spiritual element which unites all the various scion of Europe. This secret and inner unity of so many and so evidently various peoples and nations, paradoxically renders the division of the European continent from the rest of the globe more, and not less valid, notwithstanding the fact that geographically one can present only the feeblest excuse for such a distinction.